Phonetics, a branch of linguistics, deals with the speech sounds, their production, combination, description and representation by written symbols. We will introduce here some basic concepts of phonetics with the objective of making the reader understand some of the unfamiliar sounds which we encountered in the course of learning Gurmukhi script.

Vowels and Consonants


Speech sounds are produced by passing breath through the oral cavity or additionally through the nasal cavity and modulating the air flow by moving some speech organ (vocal folds, the tongue or the lips called active articulators) against some other moving or non-moving speech organ (teeth, alveolar ridge, hard palate or velum called passive articulators). A sound articulated by passing air unobstructed through the vocal folds and the oral/nasal cavity is called a vowel, otherwise (if obstruction is caused) it is called a consonant.

Speech organs


The following is a list of the speech organs.

  1. Larynx : Also called the voice box is the part of throat containing glottis and vocal fold where sound is generated and pitch and volume are manipulated.
  2. Glottis : An organ of speech, located in the larynx containing the vocal folds and the opening between them.
  3. Vocal folds : Also called vocal chords produce voice by resonating i.e. vibrating due to the air coming out of lungs passing through them.
  4. Tongue : A moving organ in the mouth. Body of the tongue, the toe of the tongue and the back part of the tongue called dorsum interact with other organs to articulate speech sounds.
  5. Lips : Lips move and are responsible for some speech sounds.
  6. Teeth : Another important organ set used to produce speech sounds.
  7. Alveolar ridge : The hard raised part of the roof of the mouth immediately behind the teeth.
  8. Hard Palate : The roof of the mouth immediately behind the alveolar ridge.
  9. Velum : The part of the roof of the mouth from the hard palate extending up to above the dorsum.
  10. Oral cavity : The mouth hollow that breath passes through. It connects with the wind pipe.
  11. Nasal cavity : The hollow through the nose connecting to the windpipe above the larynx.
  12. Vocal tract : The cavity consisting of the laryngeal cavity, the pharynx, the oral cavity, and the nasal cavity where sound that is produced in larynx is filtered.

Place of articulation


When a consonant sound is produced one of the speech organs namely the glottis, the velum, the palate, the alveolar ridge, the teeth, lips is acted upon by another moving speech organ e.g. vocal folds, tongue or lips. Such a speech organ or a location thereon is the place of articulation of the speech sound and speech sound articulated at such a place is called a

  1. Glottal : articulated with i.e. by moving glottis (see A in figure), /ਹ/ is the only glottal sound in Punjabi.
  2. Velar : produced by placing back part of tongue called dorsum against velum (see D in figure). /ਕ, ਖ, ਗ, ਘ, ਙ/ are Punjabi velars.
  3. Palatal : produced by touching the hard palate (see E in figure) with the tongue. /ਚ, ਛ, ਜ, ਝ, ਞ, ਸ਼/ are Punjabi palatals.
  4. Retroflex : produced with tongue curling and touching the palate near alveolar ridge (see F in figure). /ਟ, ਠ, ਡ, ਢ, ਣ, ੜ, ਲ਼/ are Punjabi retroflexes.
  5. Dental : produced by placing the tongue against the upper teeth(see G in figure). /ਤ, ਥ, ਦ, ਨ, ਸ, ਲ, ਰ, ਜ਼/ are Punjabi dentals
  6. Labial : produced by closing the lips (see H in figure) to stop the air flow. /ਪ, ਫ, ਬ, ਮ/ are Punjabi labials.

Manner of articulation


As noted above a consonant sound is produced by obstructing the flow of air. This is done in a number of different ways called manner of articulation of the speech sound.

  1. Plosive : Also called a stop. Plosive speech sounds are produced when a speech articulator interacts with another to completely stop the air flow for a while and the resultant air pressure is released suddenly causing an explosion. /ਕ, ਖ, ਗ, ਚ, ਛ, ਜ, ਟ, ਠ, ਡ, ਤ, ਥ, ਦ, ਪ, ਫ, ਬ/ are all plosives or stops.
  2. Nasal : When air flows out of the nasal cavity it resonates and a nasal speech sound is produced by passing air through oral cavity with part of the air passing through the nasal cavity. /ਙ, ਞ, ਣ, ਨ, ਮ/ are Punjabi nasals.
  3. Fricative : When a sound articulator is placed in such a manner that the air flow does not stop completely and passes through a side or the sides of the articulator causing an air friction with the speech articulator, the resultant speech sound is called a fricative. /ਸ, ਸ਼, ਜ਼, ਹ, ਫ਼/ are Punjabi fricatives.
  4. Lateral : Lateral sounds are articulated along the axis of the tongue, while air from the lungs escapes at one side or both sides of the tongue. /ਲ, ਲ਼/ are the two Punjabi laterals.
  5. Trill : A trill (ਰ in Punjabi) is a consonantal sound produced by vibrations between the articulator and the place of articulation.
  6. Flap : A flap is a type of consonantal sound (ੜ in Punjabi), which is produced with a single contraction of the muscles so that the tongue is thrown against palate.
  7. Approximants : Approximants or Semi-vowels are speech sounds that could be regarded as intermediate between vowels and typical consonants. /ਯ, ਵ/ are the two Punjabi Approximants.
  • Aspirated sounds : Sounds are produced with the breath coming out of the lungs. Aspirated sounds are produced when the amount of air flowing out of vocal tract is abnormally high. /ਖ, ਛ, ਠ, ਥ, ਫ/ are the aspirated sounds of Punjabi. Aspiration of a sound can be experienced by placing palm before the mouth while producing an aspirated sound.
  • Voiced sounds : Sounds produced while the vocal folds vibrate are called voiced sounds otherwise they are called unvoiced. The voiced sounds are characterized by a buzzing of the sound which can be experienced by placing a finger on the throat while producing a voiced sound. /ਗ, ਜ, ਡ, ਦ, ਬ, ਰ, ਜ਼/ are voiced sounds of Punjabi.

Classification of Gurmukhi sounds


The following table of Gurmukhi/Punjabi letters/sounds has been arranged in accordance with the sound articulation characteristics. The sounds are normally classified by describing the place of articulation, manner of articulation and voicing. Thus the rows of this table describe the place of articulation and the columns both the manner of articulation and voicing. Punjabi linguists debate as to whether /ਘ, ਝ, ਢ, ਧ, ਭ/ are the aspirated, voiced variants of the corresponding consonants /ਕ, ਚ, ਟ, ਤ, ਪ/ or they are pronounced as /ਕ, ਚ, ਟ, ਤ, ਪ/ respectively followed by a low tone when occurring word initially and as /ਗ, ਜ, ਡ, ਦ, ਬ/ respectively preceded by a high tone when occurring elsewhere. The debate seems to be settling in favor of the later view. We have, however, included these letters in this table so that the reader is familiarized with these letters. This is made necessary because of the fact their use is wide spread.

Punjabi Consonants
Plosive and affricate Nasal Fricative Flap Approxi-
Normal Aspirated Voiced Tonal Unvoiced Voiced
Palatal ਸ਼
Retroflex ਲ਼
Dental ਜ਼
Labio-dental ਫ਼

We are not touching on the vowels here, because there is no confusion regarding the use of Punjabi vowels.



Tone is the pitch or change in pitch of the voice. The languages in which tone has lexical significance, that is the use of tone changes the meaning of the word, are called tonal languages. Punjabi is a tonal language. There are two tones in Punjabi, the low tone and the high tone. The following example will illustrate.

• ਕੋੜਾ = whip (ਕੋ + ੜਾ)
• ਘੋੜਾ = horse (ਕੋ + low tone + ੜਾ)
• ਕੋਹੜਾ = leper (ਕੋ + high tone + ੜਾ)

The letters ਘ, ਝ, ਢ, ਧ and ਭ are of special significance in the context of tone. These letters provide the corresponding unaspirated unvoiced consonant sounds followed by a low tone when they appear at the beginning of a word. See for example:

• ਘਰ = house (ਕ + low tone + ਰ)
• ਝੰਡਾ = flag (ਚੰ + low tone + ਡਾ)
• ਢੱਕ = cover (ਟੱ + low tone + ਕ)
• ਧੱਕਾ = push (ਤੱ + low tone + ਕ)
• ਭਾਰ = weight (ਪਾ + low tone + ਰ)

However when they occur elsewhere in a word their sounds are replaced with a high tone followed by the corresponding unaspirated voiced consonant. See these examples:

• ਸਿੰਘ = lion (ਸਿੰ + high tone + ਗ)
• ਬੋਝਾ = pocket (ਬੋ + high tone + ਜਾ)
• ਕੱਢ = take out (ਕੱ + high tone + ਡ)
• ਕੰਧ = wall (ਕੰ+ high tone + ਦ)
• ਖੰਭ = feather (ਖੰ + high tone + ਬ)

When ਹ comes at the beginning of a word or a syllable it is spoken with its normal glottal fricative sound. However when it comes in a word at a different place it is spoken as a high tone. See the examples below-

• ਜਾਹ = go (ਜਾ + high tone)
• ਸਾਹ = breath (ਸਾ + high tone)
• ਚਾਹ = desire (ਚਾ + high tone)

When ਹ appears at the medial or terminal position it transforms the adjoining vowel. For example when ਹਿ appears in a medial position the ਹ sound is substituted with a high tone and the ਿ shifts to the preceding consonant and changes to ੈ -

• ਸ਼ਹਿਰ = city (ਸ਼ੈ + high tone + ਰ)
• ਕਹਿਰ = atrocity (ਕੈ + high tone + ਰ)
• ਰਹਿ = live (ਰੈ + high tone)
• ਬਹਿ = sit (ਬੈ + high tone)

Similarly the medial ਹ in the following examples is replaced by a high tone and the ਿ of the first consonant changes to ੇ -

• ਸਿਹਤ = health (ਸੇ + high tone + ਤ)
• ਕਿਹੜਾ = who (ਕੇ + high tone + ੜਾ)
• ਜਿਹੜਾ = who (ਜੇ + high tone + ੜਾ)

The ੁ of the medial ਹ shifts to the preceding consonant and changes to ੌ while ਹ is replaced with a high tone.

• ਸਹੁਰਾ = father-in-law (ਸੌ + high tone + ਰਾ)
• ਮਹੁਰਾ = poison (ਮੌ + high tone + ਰਾ)
• ਬਹੁਤ = much (ਬੌ + high tone + ਤ)

In the following example the final ਹ is replaced by a high tone while the preceding ੁ is replaced by ੋ -

• ਉਹ = he (ਓ + high tone)